Anirban Roy Choudhury
Interviews

"There is clear scope for us to grow further in each of the regional markets": Kevin Vaz

In an exclusive interview with afaqs!, CEO of regional entertainment channels, Star India shares the story behind the broadcaster's growth in regional markets and his future plans.

Gone are the days when each and every cable TV household got all the channels available with the cable operator. A Marathi today has the option to pay for Marathi channels only, and ignore the rest of the pay channels completely. In the new tariff regime, where subscribers can decide the channels they want to watch, global consulting firm KPMG says that the regional broadcast channels will play a vital role. 

Star and Disney India, the largest television broadcaster in India, has now added one more regional channel to its market leader list. Its Marathi channel Star Pravah leads the race (in Maharashtra), followed by erstwhile leader Zee Marathi. With this, Star has established leadership in Bangla, Telugu, Malayalam and Marathi (language) markets. It trails Sun TV in Tamil Nadu and has a couple of channels ahead of it in Karnataka (Kannada). 

With a mix of acquisitions and organic launches, Star India, over the years, has established a strong bouquet of regional channels. In 2018, Kevin Vaz was elevated to the post of CEO of regional entertainment channels. Since then, Vaz has rebranded a few channels, while others had a completely new slate, in terms of programming.

Vaz has spent more than two decades at Star, and was previously the CEO of south entertainment channels. In the past, he has also headed the youth and English entertainment portfolio. 

In an exclusive interview with afaqs!, he shares the story behind the broadcaster's growth in regional markets and his future plans.

Edited Excerpts:

How important is the regional broadcast space for you?

We try and push for leadership in any market that we are in. I won't distinguish between national and regional market... Over the last 2-3 years, we have invested heavily in all our regional markets. It is reflecting in today's growth. When I say invested heavily, it is in people, content, or the brands.

Can you shed some light on your brand's story so far?

Asianet (Kerala/Malayalam) has been a clear leader, with more than 50 per cent market share. It is not because there is no competition. We have had a whole lot of players, both local and national, in that market. In spite of that, Asianet has still managed to be the leader. It is because it is a channel that has constantly innovated with new shows – both fiction and non-fiction.

Now if we move to Andhra Pradesh, when we acquired Maa TV, it was the number four channel. Today, it is the clear leader, with over 41.2 per cent prime time market share. This growth started after we acquired 'Bigg Boss', as the show brought in new audiences....

Now if we look at Star Vijay (Tamil Nadu), it has always been a strong brand, but it was known for its non-fiction shows. Over the last 2-3 years, that has changed. We began the journey with 'Bigg Boss Tamil' and backed it with strong fiction programming. The channel grew by close to 300 per cent in this period. And, Tamil Nadu is one of the toughest markets.

In markets like Maharashtra and West Bengal, where the Hindi overlap is high, the perception is that the regional channels are like younger siblings of national broadcasters...

This younger sibling is just a perception. Audiences in regional markets love watching shows in their own language. We have seen that in each and every market...

Let me go back to 2008, when we launched Star Jalsha (West Bengal)... It was a market where people used to prefer national programming... But the moment Jalsha offered quality programming which could compare both fiction and non-fiction, people preferred watching it. The exact same thing has happened in Maharashtra.

Star Pravah has recently acquired a leadership position in Maharashtra, how challenging was that?

Our Maharashtra story began around this year (2020), where we started with a complete channel refresh. We wanted the channel to have the look and feel of a really proud Marathi brand (at heart). Our programming, marketing or packaging... everything we did, reflected it. We launched the refreshed version with an iconic show 'Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar', someone who has quite a following in Maharashtra.

During the COVID period, when everything went on repeat telecasts, we used the time to revamp our programming. We were well prepared with our original programming... We realised that due to COVID, people in Maharashtra could not celebrate Ganesh Chaturthi. So, we decided to celebrate it on air and launched a magnum opus mythological show 'Shri Ganesha'. This was done at a scale similar to that of any top mythology show in any top channel across genres. That helped us attract a huge audience.

Post-lockdown, we had the maximum number of launches (three fiction and one mythological show). Within a short span, we had slot leaders (6:30-9:30 p.m.). That has helped us grow the category as well as the channel. Maharashtra is a market where in January, we had 21.7 per cent market share, and we have now moved to 44.5 per cent. We still have scope for growth.

In West Bengal, two of the top five channels are from Star India. Do you see room for more channels from the same network in the same market?

There is potential to grow more in any market (not just West Bengal). In Telugu (Andhra Pradesh), we have one entertainment channel Star Maa, and we have got two movie channels Star Maa Movies and Maa Gold. Then we have got a music channel. In Tamil Nadu, we have Star Vijay. We launched a movie channel Vijay Super and have recently launched a music channel Vijay Music.

There is always scope to grow the number of movie channels and channels within the genre… After you have reached leadership position, you need to come up with better positioning and then launch your second channel. If you offer quality content, more consumers will tune in.

Does it make economic sense to spend on production value, especially in markets like West Bengal?

Whatever we do, we go in it with a strong business sense. Anything we spend and launch, we make sure that we are working with the right mechanics. At the end of the day, if you want to stay on top, you will need to keep on innovating.

Consumers today are exposed to different kinds of content across (different) mediums or platforms. If you have to be relevant, you will have to give consumers the next big high.

How difficult was regaining leadership with Star Jalsha?

Star Jalsha has been one of our best launches and it has been the fastest-growing channel. Within the first eight months, it jumped to leadership (position), despite having two strong players in the market (Zee and ETV). The quality and production value (that Jalsha launched with) was far better than what other channels were offering in that market. That is why it jumped into leadership (position).

Yes, in 2018, Star Jalsha lost its way. Then we connected with our viewers and found that they wanted female protagonists. They were looking for 'Bangaliana' - local flavour. We wanted our new shows to be relevant, relatable and progressive. Today, four out of five and, at times, seven out of top 10 programmes are Star Jalsha shows. Over the last couple of years, we have grown our share from 20 to 41 per cent in this market.

Also Read: How big will Bigg Boss Tamil and Telugu be this time?

Tamil Nadu is clearly your biggest challenge, where Sun TV is the leader. Distribution is also complicated in that market... How would you position Star Vijay?

Star Vijay has had phenomenal growth over the last few years. In a market as difficult as that, we have managed prime time leadership. It is a very strong brand in every household in Tamil Nadu today. There is scope to grow in that market…

Another market where you are a challenger is Kannada (Karnataka). What is your plan with Star Suvarna?

Kannada is a large market and in the last 12 months, there has been a huge change in Karnataka. Star Suvarna was the number four channel for a very long period of time… Over the last eight months, we have started investing in Suvarna. We have become a strong number two in that market.

Today, we have 28 per cent market share (during prime time) and 25 per cent overall market share. This is one market where we will concentrate more as we go forward, as there is a clear potential to grow.

Also Read: "Advertising growth on regional TV is higher than national, Hindi": Sudhanshu Vats, Group CEO, Viacom18

We have seen reports identifying Bhojpuri and Gujarati as emerging regional markets. Do you have plans to expand to new markets?

No, not at the moment. I feel there is a clear scope for us to grow further in each of the regional markets where we are already in. I would prefer to see how we can consolidate our position in these markets before diving into more markets at the moment. For now, we are sticking to these markets.

Last year, in Hotstar's report, it was mentioned that the most watch entertainment programme was 'Bigg Boss Tamil'. It is clear people are consuming regional content on OTT platforms, how big a challenge is that?

We look at ourselves as content providers, irrespective of platforms. 'Bigg Boss' (Tamil and Telugu) continue to grow on Hotstar. People can watch it together with their family on TV. It also gives some people the opportunity to watch it at their own time on their own screen. There is potential for growth for both platforms simultaneously.

To grow further in the regional markets, will you have to compete and take money out of print?

Each regional market is different. In the south, TV has always been the biggest medium... The penetration of TV sets in there is somewhere between 95 and 99 per cent. You can reach the entire state through TV and it continues to grow.

Also, how much are you dependent on regional advertisers for the growth of regional channels? Are national brands increasing their spends on regional channels?

Tamil Nadu, Kerala and then West Bengal, these are the markets where there are many local businesses. They contribute 30-35 per cent of the total ad revenue. But each and every national brand advertises on regional television, and that seems to grow year on year. Many national brands are now getting their growth from Tier-II and III cities. It is the reason why advertising on regional television is also growing.

When will the ad rates of Marathi channels match that of GECs?

I can't compare the two. People who advertise on a national channel will advertise for many markets, whereas people who want to advertise for Maharashtra will have to come to Marathi channels. Because of the performance, I see good growth in ad spends on regional channels. Advertisers will follow eyeballs, and they will continue to pay for it.

Which according to you is the regional market with most potential for television?

I would not like to isolate any particular market and say that it has the most potential. For us, in the markets where we are the leaders (Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Bengal), we want to grow more. In the markets where we are not the leaders (Karnataka, Tamil Nadu), we would like to strive for leadership.